End of treatment

How do I talk to my family and friends about this stage of my cancer?

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Conversations around end of life are some of the most difficult anyone can have. This page is here to offer advice on how to have these conversations, and support your family both during this time, and when you are no longer with them.

Considering how personal end of life is, many people find the idea of sharing that news a burden because they worry about causing other people distress.

Below we’ve collected some advice for how to broach these difficult conversations. However above all, even though you are sharing difficult information with other people, it’s important to remember that it’s ok to be upset yourself. Being honest about your feelings and thoughts will help you have meaningful conversations at this time when they matter so much.

Talking to adult family and friends about cancer

Talking to adult family and friends1

  • Tell people in person (where possible): where you may have close family or friends living away from home, this might be more difficult, but where possible it is best to have these conversations face to face. Try and pick a quiet location to sit. Perhaps somewhere private if you think people will become very upset and they may be self-conscious about it. Don’t feel guilty asking a loved one to share the news on your behalf if you feel more comfortable doing it this way
  • Don’t put off conversations waiting for the right moment: be straightforward with what you want to say, and don’t wait for a pause to start
  • Be specific, and detailed: tell people what your doctors have told you around your cancer and your prognosis. If they ask for further details you can tell them, or keep them private if you prefer – it’s up to you, but people will often have a lot of questions
  • Be honest, and patient: don’t try and pretend that everything is ok. Even if you have come to terms with the idea of your end of life, it may take other people some time
  • Be prepared: everyone will react differently, but it’s likely that many people will be upset, and will cry or be in shock. Some people may even be in disbelief, or angry. In these instances, it’s good to share specific details about your cancer experience so far so that they can understand the full story
Talking to children and teenagers about cancer

Talking to children and teenagers

Talking to anyone about cancer is a challenge, but it can be even more so when it comes to talking to children or teenagers, and when the conversation involves the end of life. We’ve listed some tips below:2,3    

  • Be honest, and specific: it may seem difficult, but tell children outright what is going on. Sit down with them at a calm time, and have another adult in the room with you if you think this would help
  • Use clear, simple language: try to speak to your children in a way that they understand, but most importantly in a way that you’re comfortable with
  • Tailor your approach: children develop quickly, and some will be more aware of death than others. Additionally, also consider that children with disabilities or developmental abnormalities may struggle more than others, and in these cases a different approach may be needed
  • Be prepared for questions: young children often don’t have the same concept of permanence or dying that older ones do. They may ask questions about what it means to die, what happens to people when they die etc. Be prepared for questions like these and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to questions about the future    

How to support loved ones at this time

In addition to having important conversations about end of life, there’s a lot of opportunity to emotionally and practically support your loved ones, and ensure certain things are in place for after you have passed away.

We’ve put some suggestions below for you to consider:   

Emotional support    

  • Write letters to loved ones so that they have something personal to look back on
  • Create memory boxes together, and fill them with tokens, photos, and stories about special moments
  • Plan special events or trips with loved ones
  • If you follow a faith, consult spiritual or community leaders with loved ones
  • Plan a special place with them to have a memorial arranged for their reflection in the future. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a grave site – it could be a plaque, a bench, or even a special tree or viewpoint somewhere that is meaningful to you all (check with local councils about installing plaques and benches beforehand)
  • Set aside time together to have conversations, and share life stories
  • Ensure your family has a network of loved ones and friends around them to help them through their grief. This could include neighbours for nearby support    
Practical support

Practial support

  • Ensure any financial support is arranged and in place. Your family may be entitled to certain benefits or life insurance payments, so check the conditions around these in advance
  • Keep important documents (insurance, wills, bank account information, etc.) in a safe place, and make sure your loved ones know where they are
  • Pull together a summary of all of your subscriptions, memberships, and registrations that will need to be cancelled
  • Ensure funeral plans are in place – you can work with your loved ones to arrange this. They may want to suggest music, or readings they would like to remember you by, and you can make sure they know of any wishes you have too. You may even want to contribute financially / put some money to one side for this
  • While people who die of cancer may not be able to donate many organs, it may be possible for you to donate your corneas (a part of the eyes) after you die. You may also wish to donate your body for medical research.4 If you wish for this to take place then ensure your family know in advance
  • Ensure that you have a will in place – remember that even if you have lived with somebody for a long time but aren’t married they are not always automatically entitled to your estate and possessions, so ensure that your last wishes are clearly set out
  • Work with them to set up a power of attorney and create a “living will” (also called an “advanced directive”) to determine what care you want if you are no longer able to make decisions yourself. This can include information around resuscitation, pain relief, etc
  • Have plans for any pets, and where they will go after you have passed
You can read more about some of these practical aspects here.

  1. Beyond. How to tell people you’re dying. Available from https://beyond.life/help-centre/preparing-for-death/tell-people-youre-dying/. Last accessed August 2019.
  2. Macmillan Cancer Support. Explaining cancer to children and teenagers. 2016. Available from https://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/coping/talking-about-cancer/talking-to-children/explaining-cancer.html#308667. Last accessed August 2019.
  3. Beyond. How to explain death to a child. Available from: https://beyond.life/help-centre/grief-loss-bereavement/explain-death-child/. Last accessed August 2019.
  4. Macmillan Cancer Support. Organ and tissue donation. 2015. Available from: https://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/organising/planning-for-the-future-with-advanced-cancer/advance-care-planning-england-wales/organ-tissue-donation.html. Last accessed August 2019.